How educators can navigate psychosocial hazards in the workplace

How educators can navigate psychosocial hazards in the workplace

Throughout Australia’s education landscape, the double whammy of ongoing burnout and lack of support are causing burnout and anxiety among thousands of teachers and leaders.  

According to SuperFriend's Indicators of a Thriving Workplace report, 39% of primary educators and 43% of secondary educators report suffering burnout symptoms at work. Unsurprisingly, the same report also revealed 30% of primary teachers and 25% of secondary teachers intended to leave their jobs in the next 12 months.

Figures like these highlight the importance of effectively managing and reducing work-related psychosocial hazards, which is now just as important as managing physical safety. For schools, this includes reducing risk factors such as high stress levels, bullying, harassment, unreasonable job demands, lack of support, exposure to traumatic events, and occupational burnout.

Change begins with culture

Since 2003, Springfox has worked with many of the world's leading organisations to build resilience using an evidence-based and practical approach designed to measure progress and sustain positive change.

The company’s co-founder and CEO, Peta Sigley says the first and most important step school leaders can take to foster a psychologically safe workplace is making a conscious decision to lead with openness, compassion, and trust.

“Psychologically unsafe environments develop when these things are absent—when leaders fail to communicate openly, when there’s a lack of empathy and understanding towards the difficulties staff may be experiencing, and when trust is replaced with hypervigilance and fear of failure,” Sigley told The Educator.

“Instead, leaders need to focus on cultivating a culture that values effort, care, and resilience over results alone, where both successes and failures are recognised and embraced.”

Sigley said this means creating an environment where teachers feel empowered to express themselves, collaborate with colleagues, and experiment with new ideas and approaches without fear of reprisal if things don’t work out.

“Importantly, it also means creating an environment in which staff have the support to manage extreme workloads effectively and speak up when assistance is required, as this is critical to preventing burnout,” she said.

“Establishing trust between leadership and staff is paramount, as it lays the foundation to endeavour to thrive professionally and personally. By prioritising psychological safety, school leaders not only enhance the well-being of their staff but also create an environment conducive to student growth, curiosity, and authentic expression.”

Early intervention is critical

Sigley said preventative measures and intervention strategies leaders can be used to support teacher wellbeing, noting that there are several important steps that principals can take to achieve this.

“We know many schools are experiencing dire teacher shortages, which is undoubtedly going to place enormous pressure—mentally, physically and emotionally—on those attempting to fill the gaps,” she said.

“Therefore, in terms of preventative measures, it’s crucial that leaders provide guidance and support to help teachers manage heavy workloads more efficiently, which can significantly reduce stress and anxiety, and prevent burnout.”

Sigley said looking at the bigger picture, fostering a culture of trust, compassion, and open communication between leadership and staff is crucial for creating a psychologically safe environment where teachers feel supported, seen, and valued.

“Encouraging positive relationships among staff through team building initiatives or simply highlighting a job well done during the weekly staff meeting can contribute to a supportive and cohesive work environment,” she said.

“In terms of intervention strategies, it’s important that schools have the right systems and procedures in place.”

At the first sign of distress, overwhelm, or burnout, leaders must be equipped to act swiftly, starting with a conversation to identify the challenges a teacher may be experiencing and listening to their concerns and needs, says Sigley.

“It’s important that these conversations are held with compassion and understanding, and that solutions are determined together. It may be an EAP referral, or perhaps it is simply a mental health day to regroup and reset,” she said.

“What’s important is that action is taken as soon as the red flags have been identified, as a swift response will mitigate further challenges.”

Spotting the warning signs

Sigley said it is important for leaders to observe changes in behaviour such as withdrawal, disengagement, absenteeism, increased irritability or pessimism, as these changes can offer crucial insights into staff well-being.

“Teachers may avoid conversation or collaboration in the staffroom, fail to meet deadlines, or consistently opt out of non-compulsory activities. Of course, in addition to spotting the signs, leaders must also remain open and responsive to direct reports of stress, overwhelm, or exhaustion amongst teachers,” Sigley said.

“Fostering an environment in which teachers feel comfortable to speak up is important—but what’s more important is that these concerns are addressed and taken seriously by leadership.”

Reducing psychosocial hazards now a legal requirement

Sigley said employers are beginning to recognise that mental health risks in the workplace can be just as harmful as physical risks.

“Under new legislation, effectively managing and reducing work-related psychosocial hazards is now a legal requirement that’s just as important as managing physical safety,” she said.

“For employers across industries, this includes reducing risk factors such as high stress levels, bullying, harassment, unreasonable job demands, lack of support, exposure to traumatic events, and occupational burnout.”

Sigley said just as ensuring the physical safety and well-being of students and staff is a school’s priority, recognising and safeguarding against psychosocial hazards must be viewed as equally important.

“Cultivating a psychologically safe environment for both staff and students will not only enhance the well-being and happiness of the school community but will also promote a culture of growth, curiosity, and authentic expression, which is essential for learning and development.”